Feature: Cisco, UnitedHealth form reimbursable telehealth network

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UnitedHealth Group and Cisco are partnering to build a national telehealth network, which will give patients access to physicians and specialists when in-person visits are not possible. The new Connected Care program combines audio and video technology and health resources to expand physicians' reach into underserved areas. UnitedHealth has committed tens of millions of dollars toward the new initiative.

Pamela A. Hymel, MD, Cisco's senior director of integrated health and medical director, said in an interview that Connected Care will provide an open and secure network for the exchange of medical information, allowing it to connect telemedicine technologies, EMRs and disparate systems from multiple vendors. The program will seek to acheive real-time connectivity and consultations among doctors, nurses, and health system professionals across the country, creating a more connected system of healthcare.

Frances Dare, director with Cisco's healthcare group, said that the real challenges around interoperability tend to lie with data exchange. Initially, the majority of transmitted information will be drawn from biomedical devices, and be centered around people-to-people interactions.

"We hope to develop an interoperable network, so that we can connect patients with their care providers and payors," Hymel said.

Cisco said its HealthPresence will be one of the main technologies enabling Connected Care to use video, audio and medical information to create an experience similar to an in-person visit with a doctor.

Jim Woodburn, MD, vice president and medical director of telehealth at UnitedHealth, said in an interview that UnitedHealth's involvement will draw from its provider network, including 590,000 physicians and care professionals and more than 4,900 hospitals, its IT and claims processing capabilities and its financial commitment.

Woodburn explained that Medicare only covers telehealth visits in certain rural and underserved areas. However, with this new program, UnitedHealth will reimburse its physicians, specialists and providers for these types of visits.

He added that it will contribute information from pharmacy claims to lab value to encounter data, in order to key up a dashboard of information for that provider during their telehealth visit, as well as coupling its life coaches and case managers after the visit.

As healthcare reform looks toward preventive medicine, Hymel stressed that these types of initiatives can empower patients to be aware and track their biometrics--such as glucose and cholesterol--throughout their care cycle, along with their care givers.

"By providing access to care in a more economical way, we can open the door, we are really encouraging patients to become more proactive in their own health," she said.